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Revising Inside a Classroom Management System

posted: 8.23.11 by Steve Bernhardt

It’s typical for writing teachers to use peer review to help students learn to revise. And as I pointed out in a recent Bits post, we can’t assume that even practicing scientists in companies that rely on documentation are able to offer effective review commentary. Doing so is a refined and complex art.

One reason I like classroom management software is that it provides an environment for structuring and facilitating peer review of draft papers. I now use Sakai, an open-source program, to which we migrated following not-so-good experiences with WebCT (now Blackboard). Neither application is designed for working with classes of writers, and each is clumsy in its own way. But both make it possible to exchange drafts, collect commentary, and create the conditions for learning.

The Forum tool in Sakai, a bulletin board for threaded discussions, offers a pretty good setup for peer review. The instructor can create a topic thread for a given assignment, and students can post their drafts for peer review, along with a message describing the state of the draft and identifying places that need help, under that thread. Posting to the forum makes review a public activity—everyone can see who has posted when. Students can tell whose draft is advanced and whose is sketchy. They can get a sense for how other writers are handling the assignment. They will likely feel a bit of pressure from putting their draft out in front of classmates, where saving face is more critical than in any interaction with an instructor.

I often use an informal yet effective mechanism for exchange: everyone has to give two reviews and receive two. I let the students work out whose work they review. They will typically read several drafts before deciding which to review, again exposing them to the writing of their peers. They have some control over selection, at least initially, if they are prompt. The number of drafts requiring a first or second review narrows quickly.

We all work in Word with Track Changes and Comments (see Barclay Barrios’ post on commenting with Word). This is the best review toolset there is, and learning to use it well is great preparation for working with electronic texts in professional work settings. When students finish reviewing a draft, they post it to the correct point in the thread, under the original draft. We can see at a glance whose drafts have been reviewed by whom. I can look at the reviewing students are doing and really know what kind of work is taking place.

When we finish a round of review, I will typically ask, “Who received a particularly helpful review?” Students are quick to volunteer, and then we can talk about what exactly a good reviewer does. I’ll ask that good reviewer if she minds if I put her work up before displaying it on the screen at the front of the room. We can look at her comments, examine how she inserted changes into the draft, and read what she said at the end of the text. We can talk about what the writer does next. I’ll sometimes offer an extra point to a reviewer if a writer sends me a memo describing the expert assistance he received.

Why does classroom management software work well for peer review? Because it makes revision public, opening a complex process up for view. It teaches collateral skills, like working online with revision tools, naming and attaching files, and keeping track of file versions. It helps create community and mutual interdependence in the writing classroom. It keeps things organized and in one place, inside the classroom. And the activity is well suited to the technology.

I’d welcome hearing from you if you have ideas for teaching peer revision or if you use these tools yourself.

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Categories: Peer Review, Teaching with Technology
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